October 16, 2005

Almost Worse Than Ohio Nazis

by PG

Unlike the Illinois Nazis of Blues Brothers fame, the people who planned to march in Toledo on Saturday weren't "those bums [who] won their courtcase so they're marching today." In the mayor's plea Friday night for residents to ignore the march, he said the city wouldn’t give the Nazi group a permit to march in the streets but couldn’t stop them from walking on the sidewalks. Unfortunately, his words had little effect; an anti-Nazi protest turned into a riot, with vandalism, arson and assaults against police officers. The reportedly gang-driven violence was particularly ironic, as the Nazis claimed to be demonstrating on behalf of white residents beset by black gangs. This is an unsurprisingly racist view; a) would it be better if the gangs were Italian mafia? and b) gangs frequently prey upon targets in close proximity, so African Americans are more likely to be victimized by African American gangs. "Keith White, a black resident, criticized city officials for allowing the march in the first place. 'They let them come here and expect this not to happen?' said White, 29."

This implicit defense of such a reaction to an exercise of First Amendment rights strikes me as a greater threat than the Nazis themselves. A few dozen members of the National Socialist Movement, aka “America’s Nazi Party,” cannot do much harm as long as they remain nonviolent. A response of pitying contempt for them neutralizes their ability to influence others, whereas an exaggerated view of their powers makes them appear fascinating and worthwhile. On the other hand, an attitude that the government should suppress distasteful speech is all-too-common. While Mr. White doubtlessly thinks his own speech should be protected, he doesn't extend that to speech by people that only the ACLU could love. Nor is this a viewpoint restricted to the legally unsophisticated; Justice Scalia, despite his belief that the First Amendment protects flag-burning, voted to retain a cross-burning ban because the latter activity's historical import causes too much fear to be tolerated.

While I'm thinking of people mentioned in the news whose First Amendment understandings annoy me, let me note Robert McLean of Woodbridge, whose letter-to-the-editor comparing a song about the devil's defeat in a fiddling contest to a song about God's grace and redemptive power inspired sufficient fear in a high school band director to cause him to pull The Devil Went Down to Georgia from performance. In order to correct Mr. McLean's confusion about state institutions' mentioning religious figures (constitutional) versus endorsing the same (unconstitutional), perhaps the director can add "Personal Jesus" or "Jesus He Knows Me" instead. The several Volokh commenters who seem to share Mr. McLean's muddle might profit by it as well, although that probably will bring on a chorus of disapproval for music that mocks commercialized Christianity. Even "John Wayne and Jesus" (a favorite of mine) probably would be considered disrespectful for putting a movie star with the Son of God -- which just goes to show that mixing government and religion doesn't always do religion a favor.

October 16, 2005 03:49 AM | TrackBack

While some of Volokh's commentators may be in a constitutional muddle, I don't think the band director who pulled the song from the roster is in any such confusion. He doesn't seem to have pulled it on First Amendment grounds themselves, but because some people might be offended--or bring attention to the school--due to the difference in how the two songs are treated.

After all, the constitutional line is pretty arbitrary. Amazing Grace is one of the few spirituals that I actually enjoy listening to, and it would be nice to hear it played by a good marching band. Sadly, the fact that we might imply to someone desperate to preserve the wall between church and state that there was some "endorsement" of religion by playing the tune means that it must be banished from the football field. But such is the price for making sure that the "harm" of establishment never darkens the otherwise pristine halls of our public schools...

Posted by: A. Rickey at October 17, 2005 01:04 PM

I wasn't complaining about the band director, who like most school employees is justifiably gutless. I'm complaining about the letter-to-the-editor writer, who created the fear by his mixing up mention of supernatural entity with endorsement of supernatural entity. The songs are treated differently because they are different -- a song by a Satanist on the glories of the devil probably wouldn't make it on-field, just as a song by a Christian on the glories of God and Grace doesn't.

I like "Amazing Grace" too, and requested it be sung over again when I attended a Christian Legal Society conference. I just don't request that government-funded bodies perform it at high school events.

Posted by: PG at October 18, 2005 01:20 AM

The question, of course, is not whether it is requested, but whether they are positively forbidden to do so, whether requested or not.

Posted by: A. Rickey at October 18, 2005 01:23 AM
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